Old Bailey Online and London Lives Update, 11 August 2016

Regular users may already be aware that following a recent security incident affecting the servers on which the websites are hosted, Old Bailey Online has been operating with extremely limited functionality and London Lives has been unavailable. This is just a brief notice to readers that both are now up and running, and although service is still limited, they have the core functions of keyword and name searches, date filters and reference search for both sites; crime/verdict/punishment search for OBO; document type selection for London Lives (as well as browsing by documents/dates). Document images are now displaying as well.

More advanced or specialised searches (statistics, API, mapping, etc) and user-related features are not yet available, but work is ongoing to reinstate these. [edit: the statistics search is also available again; this can also be used to access some search features (such as defendant gender) that have not yet been restored elsewhere]

We’re very sorry about any ongoing inconvenience the limitations may cause site users; please bear with us as we gradually get back to normal.

However, as functions are re-introduced, they may be buggy at first and if you find something on the sites doesn’t seem to be working properly, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: you can email oldbailey@sheffield.ac.uk or send a tweet to @oldbaileyonline.

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An Ancestor in Crime

This is a guest post by Aoife O Connor, one of the PhD students on our partner project, the Digital Panopticon, who is researching the impact of the digitisation of historical crime records. 

Digitisation has opened up archival records to entirely new audiences, eager audiences. Material which sat on a shelf from one end of the year to the other, never or rarely requested, is now viewed and used by thousands of researchers across the globe. As part of the Digital Panopticon Project I am researching how family historians and genealogists use crime records in their research. How have the things they have discovered impacted the direction of their work, the story they tell and how do they integrate a criminal ancestor into their family’s story?

As anyone using the Old Bailey Online knows, criminal records are one of the best sources for learning about non-elite lives. They are richly detailed records containing everything from physical descriptions of prisoners to wonderful contextual details. There are a wide range of crime records available both in archives and online. At the opposite end of the court system from the Old Bailey there are the records of the Petty Sessions. From these records local communities can be reconstructed as the inhabitants go about their daily lives, paying dog licences, liquor licences, and yes, being fined for allowing their cattle to wander into a neighbour’s field. From newspaper court reports we hear the voices of ordinary men and women as they give evidence. We learn where people lived and who their neighbours were, the geography and social structure of villages and towns come into view. Infanticide records, saddening and shocking as they are, reveal the moral pressures of their times. Prison records often give physical descriptions include height and weight, and distinctive markings such as tattoos, and later, a photograph.

Genealogists have long recognised the value of crime records. Three of the major guides written for family historian were published before the records were digitised.[1] However, whereas previously genealogists often relied on family lore, or the discovery of an ancestor in an institution in a census record to lead them to their ancestor’s criminal records, it is now possible for a family historian to stumble upon literally dozens of ‘criminal’ ancestors. Descendants of victims, witnesses, and judiciary can also learn valuable information about their ancestors’ lives. I am also exploring how genealogists convey potentially difficult personal heritage to living family members. Equally I want to hear from those who are proud of their ‘criminal’ ancestors, and those who discovered more about their ancestors because of a crime, perhaps they were a witness or a magistrate. Being some of the best records for non-elites records associated with crime are particularly invaluable in Australia and Ireland where traditional genealogical records such as censuses are virtually non-existent. But does this mean family historians in those countries see those ancestors primarily as criminals or do they view crime records in a more neutral light? So many questions!

To help with my research I am hosting a number of short surveys on my website. If you have discovered an ancestor in the Old Bailey Records (or any crime related record on or offline) I would appreciate your taking the time to take one (or all!) of the surveys:


[1] Hawkings, D. (1987) Bound for Australia: A Guide to the Records of Transported Convicts and Early Settlers; Wade, S. (2009) Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians; Hawkings, D. (1998) Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales.

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The London Lives book is nearly here…


The new book by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker is due out in August 2015 and now taking pre-orders: London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City is the outcome of several years’ work on the London Lives project.

The blurb:

London Lives is a fascinating new study which exposes, for the first time, the lesser-known experiences of eighteenth-century thieves, paupers, prostitutes and highwaymen. It charts the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Londoners who found themselves submerged in poverty or prosecuted for crime, and surveys their responses to illustrate the extent to which plebeian Londoners influenced the pace and direction of social policy. Calling upon a new body of evidence, the book illuminates the lives of prison escapees, expert manipulators of the poor relief system, celebrity highwaymen, lone mothers and vagrants, revealing how they each played the system to the best of their ability in order to survive in their various circumstances of misfortune. In their acts of desperation, the authors argue that the poor and criminal exercised a profound and effective form of agency that changed the system itself, and shaped the evolution of the modern state.

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Old Bailey Online Update March 2015

Our latest site update (version 7.2) is now live!* The main news for site users to be aware of – especially those who use the statistical functions – is that we’ve done a lot of work correcting data errors.

Data corrections

The most substantial are:

  • A number of related issues with the tagging of husbands and wives (in 1674-1834 sessions) have been corrected:
    • Correction of a tagging error that assigned a number of male defendants the occupational title of “wife”. [note: there are still some male victims tagged as wives, which will hopefully be fixed in the next update]
    • The removal of erroneous defendant status tagging from about 800 husbands.
    • Correction of the mis-tagging of a number of wives’ surnames as “his” (from “his wife”). [I think there may still be some errors of this type lurking in the database, and again will try to complete cleaning these in the next update]
  • About 100 mistranscribed defendant ages have been corrected. Many defendants previously tagged as 80 and above are now correctly listed as being in their 20s or 30s.
  • About 850 genders previously listed as “indeterminate” have now been correctly labelled as male or female. In some cases the original “indeterminate” tag resulted from a mistranscription of a forename, and these mistranscriptions have been corrected.
  • Wrongly dated sessions have been corrected:
    • The date of the 13 June 1836 session of the court was previously wrongly listed as 13 July 1836, owing to a mistake on the original title page.
    • The date of the 30 May 1770 session was wrongly listed as 30 June 1770.
    • Correction of these errors has necessitated changing all trial references for those sessions, so for example, t18360713-1634 is now t18360613-1634. If users search for the previous trial numbers they will receive an error notice and be advised to correct the reference.

Phew! If you’re in the process of doing research that may be affected by any of this you should probably review your data now. If you might be affected by it but are unable to revise your work I’d strongly recommend that you ensure that all citations include the previous version number (7.1).

In addition to the substantial changes above there are about 100 individual data corrections submitted by site users. We very much appreciate that users go to the trouble of doing this for us. However, not all corrections submitted will appear on the site. There are a number of main reasons for this:

  1.  We have limited time available for corrections so we prioritise certain errors – tagging of names, offences and outcomes, in particular. Errors in transcription outside those priorities are much less likely to make the cut.
  2. Conversely, a few corrections always turn out to be unusually awkward and time-consuming (this can be particularly true of problems with images) and have to wait for a later update.
  3. We only correct errors in our transcriptions or tagging. Some corrections submitted by users turn out to be errors in the original text, which we can’t incorporate into our data – even though they’re often the most interesting corrections of all! (I have been thinking about what we might do about this some time in the future…)

Other corrections and fixes

Most of these were also sent in by site users – again, always much appreciated. The main ones to note are:

  • Missing page images for sessions 1674-c.1715 have been restored (hooray!)
  • Some problems with links in user workspaces have been fixed
  • An inaccuracy in the API documentation has been corrected.

Finally, there was also some work done updating the site server and backend code. We think this has all been thoroughly tested and any issues ironed out, but if you encounter any problems with the site please do let us know. You can leave a comment below, on twitter @OldBaileyOnline or email oldbailey@sheffield.ac.uk.

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Locating Lascars: The Old Bailey Online and the Maritime World of the Indian Ocean

CitC’s first guest post of 2015 is by Ian Petrie, on teaching with Old Bailey Online in combination with other digital tools.

In spring 2013 I first taught my course “Merchants, Saints, Slaves & Sojourners: The Worlds of the Indian Ocean”, an introductory class offered through the South Asia Studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. On the day that we read Janet Ewald’s article[1] on the movement of subalterns across the Indian Ocean in the age of empire, I brought in a handful of cases from the Old Bailey Online which featured lascars (Asian sailors), as complementary primary sources to read in class. Our reading of them was rushed, as could have been expected, and while the students seemed reasonably engaged by the material — and I was absolutely enamored with it — I considered the exercise a missed opportunity.

As I prepared to teach the course for the second time, last autumn, I knew I wanted to do something more substantive with the Old Bailey cases involving lascars. A major portion of the assessment in the course derived from four small research projects, and I elected to make one of them “Locating Lascars”, whereby each student would choose a case to research and present, over the span of two weeks.

On the first day of class, I wanted to get students started working with texts, images and maps and brought in a sample of each. My text sample was this case from OBO, which immediately engaged the students and we had a good conversation about the constellation of people represented in it, from the plaintiff (prosecutor) “John Morgan”, a Bengali Muslim, who had accompanied a “tyger” to Britain for his employer, Sir George Pigot, the former Governor of Madras, to the Irish defendants (who were represented in testimony as “speaking Irish” to each other). When I posted the link on Facebook, a friend pointed out that the case had been written about by historian Michael Fisher.[2]

Screen Shot OBO Annotation Studio

Weeks later, we read an article of Fisher’s on lascars and a related piece by Amitav Ghosh.[3] That day, I revisited the case from the first day, augmenting our original reactions to it with Fisher’s analysis and a related painting by George Stubbs. My commentary on the case was presented via Annotation Studio, a site produced by MIT to facilitate collaborative close-reading of texts. I wanted to introduce my students to the site and see how they thought it handled, although my ultimate use of it was not consistent with the designers’ aims.

The following class, each student had selected a case, and I had imported the print-friendly versions of them into Annotation Studio. We met in a new “Collaborative Classroom” in our library, which permitted us to project everyone’s case (I had only 5 students!) onto the walls, which are whiteboards. Everyone then circulated, reading each other’s cases (or part thereof) and making notes on the text (on the wall) – questions, key words, points of interest or ambiguity. Hence my “misuse” of Annotation Studio — it’s designed to facilitate such commenting online — but I wanted the physicality and novelty of getting up, moving around and writing on the walls. The students seemed to enjoy this exercise, and I think it sharpened their sense of how to approach the research for their own case, both via the input of their peers and the reading of a selection of other cases.

SAST 169 marking up cases

A week later, we returned to the collaborative classroom and the students presented on their cases, having posted their annotations in advance for us to look at before class. Those were then projected on one screen while the students briefly presented their findings — including relevant images, and maps made using the interactive historical maps of locatinglondon.org or Stanford’s Palladio.

The students’ findings were diverse and stimulating. One delved into a recent doctoral dissertation[4] to contextualize the shipboard violence meted out to lascars by a British captain. Another was delighted to make sense of her case in light of the Great Dock Strike of 1889. In all instances they investigated terms and information that were required to contextualize the cases — the parts of ships, the value of personal property in the early 18th century, and details of the social and economic history of London in the background of the cases (what did a trimmer do?).

SAST marking cases 2

I think the students would have been happy to keep working on their cases, or having found a theme that interested them, go back into the collection and find related cases to build up a more robust understanding, and I’ll consider making the Old Bailey Online assignment a more prominent part of the course since it went so well. When I told one of my students that I’d been asked to write this blog post, she said “Be sure to tell them how much we enjoyed this. It was one of the best assignments I’ve had in college”.

Ian Petrie, Center for Teaching & Learning, University of Pennsylvania (@icpetrie)


[1] Janet Ewald, “Crossers of the Sea: Slaves, Freedman, and Other Migrants in the Northwestern Indian Ocean, c. 1750-1914,” American Historical Review 105 (2000): 69-91.

[2] Michael H. Fisher, Shompa Lahiri & Shinder S. Thandi, A South-Asian History of Britain (Westport, CT, 2007)

[3] Michael H. Fisher, “Working across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain, and in Between, 1600-1857,” International Review of Social History 51 (2006): 21–45; Amitav Ghosh, “Of Fanas and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail,” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 25 (June 21, 2008): 56–62.

[4] Ceri-Anne Fidler, “Lascars c. 1850-1950: The Lives and Identities of Indian Seafarers in Imperial Britain and India,” (unpub PhD dissertation, Cardiff University, 2011) [accessed at orca.cf.ac.uk/55477/1/U516542.pdf]

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Unravelling a person’s criminal history through the archives

 A guest post by David J. Vaughan

As with any historical event, rediscovering the truth behind a Victorian crime and its key protagonists requires access to as many archives as might survive. When the main character’s journey takes them from murderess to death row prisoner, penal servant to asylum inmate, its availability – and perversely, relative scarcity – soon becomes the be-all-and-end-all of the researcher’s task.

This post looks at each of the social and administrative stations the criminal and her case encountered; how the vagaries of each affected what material was produced for the modern day researcher to discover; and how each directly influenced the biography and criminal history of a given individual.

*The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer - available here and here

*The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer – available here and here

A Case History: Celestina Sommer, London 1856

Celestina Sommer gained international notoriety after murdering her illegitimate daughter in the cellar of their Islington home. Her unrelenting tale of sorrow, infanticide, capital punishment and an unchecked descent into madness, paints a vivid picture of the darker elements of institutional Victorian England – at exactly the time when organisations and social administrations were changing, for ever.

Digging deep into the surviving archives a century and a half later, The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer* has emerged as the first (as far as I know) full and accurate retelling of one of the period’s most notorious but since inexplicably forgotten killers and the awful crime she committed.

Researching the truth/dismissing the lies: the vagaries of institutions and the records they created

Putting flesh on the bones of both Celestina Sommer the woman and her case required availability of records from before, during and after the central, horrific event. The breakthrough came with the online transcript of her Old Bailey trial, and marked the beginning of the period during which she ‘justified’ the numerous, extensive records that were created about her short, eventful life.[1]

1. The Proceedings/Old Bailey Online/London Lives – These “quasi-official” records of court proceedings (trials) at the Old Bailey are an invaluable source of information and social data. From their advent in 17th century – more as a popular account than an authoritative record – were soon seen to be the only means of accessing events in the Central Criminal Court outside the courtroom. The survival – and digitisation – of the trial of Celestina Sommer (t18560407-457) gave arguably the clearest opportunity to unravel this woman’s crime and, by extension, to delve into her short yet eventful life story.

A word or two of warning – trying variations of spellings, especially of names, was essential. Celestina was recorded as Celestika [to be rectified], so that it took several attempts to locate her records on the otherwise faultless Old Bailey Online website. Furthermore, as with all research that uses primary and secondary data (shouldn’t it all?), everything was double-checked and verified, while bearing in mind any subjectivity inherent in any written text. The commercial reality behind the original Proceedings meant very little of the defendant’s perspective was heard, making it far more salacious if less equivocal!

Finally, no matter how exciting it was to find what I was looking for, I was never misled into thinking there were no other records – accounts or official documents – including those that may not survive. For example, Celestina faced two magistrates hearings and two Old Bailey appearances. Only records of the main hearing were found.

2. Police records, from the earliest days of the Metropolitan Force, proved scarce in Celestina Sommer’s case. Despite their central role in the unfolding drama, the police archives failed to provide even scant information about the crime or the accused under investigation.

Clerkenwell Police Court plans 1843 detail

Plan of Clerkenwell Police Court, where Celestina Sommer’s journey through the justice system and into the archives began

3. At Magistrates hearings – in Celestina’s case at Clerkenwell Police Court (not to be confused with its police station namesake) – no formal transcripts were likely to have been made. Instead, press reports (full of subjectivity and prejudice) were relied on and, even in the arguably more bowdlerized 19th century, their practices and writings were far from reliable. For example, they prematurely reported the “facts from” the second magistrate’s hearing before the hearing was held. Sub judice, indeed!

4. Coroner’s Inquest reports – Like the magistrates, but for different reasons, very few CI reports survive at London Metropolitan Archives; just one (local) newspaper account was discovered which, in truth, was of even less value than those of the magistrate’s hearings…

5. Parliament – Celestina Sommer’s criminal ‘career’ received great political and legal attention – both for her act and for her subsequent treatment by the Victorian social system(s). That she featured in several debates on crime, insanity and the death penalty, in both Houses, is testament to the uncertainty surrounding her treatment, and her infamy. Transcripts of these debates were retrieved from Hansard et al; while comments, both favourable and hostile, were delivered through the writings of penal reformers like Alfred Dymond, Secretary of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment.

6. Prison – Her prison records are equally as limited: the registers captured little more than her physical and legal attributes – name, age, marital status, ability to read or write, crime, conviction and sentence. Yet, by augmenting this limited primary data with interpretative secondary sources – such as Dixon’s London Prisons (1850) and Mayhew and Binny’s Criminal Prisons of London (1862) – it was still possible to build a reliable picture of Victorian penal life. Elements of greatest import to the Victorians – those of religion, education and, crucially, prescribed gender roles – all received undue attention in the records of the institutions and their undertakings.

Yard - Brixton Prison

Women prisoners exercising in the yard at Brixton Prison

7. Fisherton House Lunatic Asylum – In the early to mid-Victorian age, with its uncertain understanding of insanity and its role as an exculpatory factor for criminal acts (viz. the insanity plea), a diagnosis of the defendant’s mind was fiercely debated and his or her future precariously balanced. The political writings from both sides of the debate are now all we have to go on – along with modern day academic assessments by people like Roger Smith and Andrew Scull.

As soon as Celestina Sommer’s insanity was eventually acknowledged, she was transferred to Britain’s largest criminal lunatic asylum, near Salisbury Wilts. Records there, though limited to her medical history and records of administration, allowed a detailed portrayal of her final days on earth and deductions about her underlying conditions.

8. The press – As already inferred, detailed comment and passing references alike were often subjective and derogatory. For example, Sommer was spared the gallows because she was German (actually not, though she was married to a Prussian immigrant; a woman; a pretty woman; any other spurious reason the reader can think of! The truths and inaccuracies within this particular source were recognized when comparing the scores of articles and reports found within a multitude of surviving and/or digitized titles.


From the execution of her crime, to her final demise within the confines of a lunatic asylum, compassion for Celestina Sommer’s mental health was seldom forthcoming. No reference to any discussion/debate on her possible madness was found, despite the prevalent taste for insanity and criminal lunacy in this age of social reform. In consequence, a huge slice of the peculiar circumstances behind her experiences was potentially overlooked. Nevertheless, through careful and thorough research of all known available sources, facts were unearthed, verified and used.

Primary and secondary source material may have its depth and accuracy devalued by an inherent lack of hard evidence, hidden agenda and ample rhetoric, but by working, dare I say, systemically, I was at least able to retell her story by judiciously piecing together the records – and rejecting the rhetoric – from her short and tragic life.

As a professional historian and author, David’s first published book is due out this summer: (Bloody British History – The History Press). His full-length narrative non-fiction title, ‘The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer, Victorian child killer’, has been self-published on Amazon Kindle etc.

Other published works include:

For further details:

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“She speaks with much dexterity”: the life of a female forger in early 18th century London

"Old Woman Eating" by Quiringh Van Brekelenkam (Google Art Project)

“Old Woman Eating” by Quiringh Van Brekelenkam (Google Art Project)

Leah Wilkinson was described as a ‘notorious old offender’ by the Navy in 1712. She had a long career as a forger and con-woman – with known criminal offences being committed over a 30 year duration. She made a living by forging wills and letters of attorney for seamen, and was able to carry on this criminal career because of her powers of persuasion and language, undeterred by spells on the pillory.

Although biographical details for Leah are few, from my research, it looks like she was born Leah Lowe into a Quaker family in London. She married Samuel Wilkinson in 1688, and they had at least one son.

The first time Leah is recorded as appearing at the Old Bailey is on 3 December 1695. She was accused of forging seven letter of attorney and wills, purporting to have been written by various seamen. By forging these documents, she had managed to obtain £200 – around £16,000 or £17,000 in today’s money. She was lucky on this occasion, being acquitted by the court – not because she was found to be innocent, but because there was a mistake in the written indictment of her charge, and so the case could not go ahead [1].

Seamen were targeted by Leah because they were able to appoint attorneys to receive their pay in their absence. These letters of attorney could therefore be forged by those hoping to obtain the seamen’s wages – with them at sea, they would not learn of the deception for some time.

Another way to get money – as Leah did – was to add a clause to the letter of attorney, purporting to be a will made by the seamen, whereby ‘they make their attorneys their executors and give the whole estate or great part thereof, the seamen being ignorant’. [2] If the seaman did then die at sea, his relations could end up penniless as a result of these forgeries.

Leah didn’t appear before the Old Bailey again until 1727 – but this does not mean she lived a virtuous life until then. She appears in other records, and was clearly up to her old tricks. In fact, she even forged a letter of attorney from her own mother.

In April 1696, Edward Whitaker wrote to the Navy Board on behalf of John King, a scrivener. King’s job was to make letters of attorney for seamen, but the Navy Board had ordered that ‘no such letters made by him will be looked on as good’ any more. This was as a result of having been paid to forge a letter of attorney for Anne Lowe – Leah’s mother, who had died in 1694. However, Whitaker noted, although King admitted the offence, he had never been prosecuted for the offence – and, ‘as he could be useful’, Whitaker recommended the Navy Board re-employ him. [3]

But Whitaker was clearly aware of Leah Wilkinson’s involvement in this offence. Two months later, in June 1696, he again wrote to the Navy Board, detailing forged documents supposedly from three people – a Captain Leake, former commander of the Sally Rose ship; Katherine Lovelace; and one Anne Lowe, deceased. This offence involved money being charged on ‘wrongly received’ seamen’s tickets and pilot bills, with the fraud amounting to about £99 – around £7,000 today. [4]

And in November that year, Whitaker had to write again, warning the Navy Board that ‘Leah Wilkinson, daughter of Anne Low[sic] deceased’ was still employing agents to receive money on her behalf, by naming them in forged letters of attorney. This letter shed light on Leah’s criminal habits – she had learned them from her mother Anne.

William Rycroft, a seaman on the Victory ship, had returned to England and gone looking for his owed wages. On him making inquiries, it emerged that in 1692, a false letter of attorney had been honoured, and Anne Lowe had received Rycroft’s wages as a result.

Two years later, Anne Lowe had been paid wages due to Thomas Pettit, a seaman on the Hannibal. Whitaker was rightly concerned that Leah and her agents were continuing their scam, and asked that any requests for power of attorney made by Leah’s agents, a Mr Harmon and an Emeroy Solesby, be stopped until they could be fully examined. [5]

Extract from Richard Burn's The Justice of the Peace showing later legislation and punishments for the crimes committed by Leah Wilkinson (image c/o Nell Darby)

Extract from Richard Burn’s The Justice of the Peace (1776)
on the crimes committed by Leah Wilkinson
(image c/o Nell Darby)

Forgery was an offence both in common law and by statute; at common law, forgery was ‘an offence in falsely and fraudulently making or altering any manner of record, or any other authentic matter of a publick nature; as a will and the like’ [6]. Certain classes of forgery were felonies without benefit of clergy, but luckily for Leah, at the time she committed her crimes, they did not come under this category.

However, the forging of letters of attorney and wills of seamen was recognized as a growing ‘evil practice’ by the end of the 17th century. Legislation was passed in 1697 to tackle the problem.

Not only did the forging of seamen’s letters of attorney become a distinct offence, punishable with a £200 fine – to be split between the king and the prosecutor – and imprisonment until the fine was paid, but the act made it illegal to produce a will AND a letter of attorney for a seaman on the same paper or parchment. If both documents were on the same paper, they would not ‘be good or available in Law to any intent or purpose’. [7]

There is no mention of Leah for the next few years, but there is no evidence that she stopped offending – just that, perhaps, she was more careful for a while. But in January 1712, the London Gazette reported that she was up to her old tricks. Describing her as ‘a notorious Old Offender’ – one has to feel a bit of sympathy with her for that epithet – the Navy Office reported that she had just been convicted at the Old Bailey for publishing a forged Bill of Sale or Assignment for the wages of a dead seaman, John Godfrey.

The Navy Pay Office, from a drawing by G Shepherd, 1816 Leah was put in the pillory outside here.

The Navy Pay Office
(from a drawing by G Shepherd, 1816)
Leah was put in the pillory outside here.

She was sentenced to stand on the pillory in front of the Navy Pay Office, which was on the corner of Great Winchester Street and Old Broad Street in London, and to stay in prison for a month. Her conviction and punishment was ‘advertised for deterring others from committing the like Offences’. [8]

But not even a spell in the pillory could stop Leah; presumably she was imprisoned for being unable to pay the statutory fine for her conviction, which suggests that she did not get to profit very much from her crimes. Perhaps, brought up by her mother to forge documents, she was unable, or reluctant, to earn a living any other way.

So in 1727, the last mention of Leah came. She appeared at the Old Bailey on a charge of drawing up a counterfeit order to receive the pay of another dead seaman – William Bar. It was noted at her trial that she ‘was one of those vile Persons, who makes a Practice of drawing up false Powers, and Letters of Administration, and thereby cheating and defrauding the Widows of such Seamen as die in the Voyage.’ This trial report gives us the best picture we have of the elderly Leah, and shows how the court view a forger who was also female.

Leah spoke at her trial in her own defence. The report stated, ‘She pleaded a great deal of Ignorance, Innocence and Incapacity, yet she talk’d of Administrations, Probates, and broad Seals, with as much Dexterity as if she had been educated at Doctor’s Commons.’ [9]

This was a self-educated woman, who, through her long criminal career, had learned a lot about the law and legal process. She played on the stereotypes of womanhood and her age, yet her proudly-displayed knowledge of probate put paid to her claims of ignorance.

Unsurprisingly, the jury found her guilty on this first count, and also on a charge of ‘persuading Margaret Smith to personate and take upon her’ the name of William Bar’s widow, in order to claim the £17 wages that had been due to her after her husband’s death. Leah was again ordered to stand in the Broad Street pillory, and given a longer prison sentence – 12 months, this time. [10]

In the end, Leah’s criminal career was probably curtailed by death rather than repentance; it is likely that she died in 1729, being buried in the non-conformist burial ground at Bunhill Fields. Her career had a negative impact on many seamen’s families; but it is impossible not to feel a little bit of admiration at this woman who learned about the law from a somewhat unconventional perspective.

Nell Darby is a PhD student at the University of Northampton, researching women’s involvement in the summary process during the long eighteenth-century. She blogs at criminalhistorian.com and is on Twitter @nelldarby


1: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, December 1695, trial of Leah Wilkinson (t16951203-35).

2: ‘William III, 1697-8: An Act for the better preventing the imbezlement of His Majesties Stores of War and preventing Cheats Frauds and Abuses in paying Seamens Wage (chapter XLI. Rot. Parl. 9 Gul. III, p.7 n.1)’ in John Raithby (ed), Statutes of the Realm, volume 7: 1695-1701)

3: The National Archives, ref ADM 106/498/126, 11 April 1696

4: The National Archives, ref ADM 106/498/186, 5 June 1696

5: The National Archives, ref ADM 106/497/207, 26 November 1696

6: Richard Burn, The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (13th edition, 1776), Vol 2, p.208

7: 9&10 William III c.41, as detailed in ‘William III, 1697-8: An Act for the better preventing the imbezlement of His Majesties Stores of War and preventing Cheats Frauds and Abuses in paying Seamens Wage (chapter XLI. Rot. Parl. 9 Gul. III, p.7 n.1)’ in John Raithby (ed), Statutes of the Realm, volume 7: 1695-1701)

8: The London Gazette, 20 January 1712

9: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, trial of Leah Wilkinson (t17270412-48), 12 April 1727

10: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, April 1727, punishment summary for Leah Wilkinson (s17270412-1), 12 April 1727

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Detective Caminada and the New Kent Road Murder

Detective Jerome Caminada courtesy of Greater Manchester Police Museum and Archives

Detective Jerome Caminada
© Greater Manchester Police Museum and Archives

Just before Christmas in 1871, Detective Jerome Caminada of the Manchester City Police Force, received instructions to track four thieves wanted in Sheffield for robbery with violence. One member of this notorious gang had garrotted the victim, whilst his accomplices had stolen the man’s gold watch and chain. Following a tip-off that the gang had been spotted in Leeds, Caminada set out immediately for the city on Christmas Eve. He traced the suspects to York Street, a disreputable quarter where, after disguising himself as a labourer, he set up surveillance.

Whilst undercover, Detective Caminada recognised John Roberts, aged 24, who was wanted for murder in London. Trailing Roberts and his dubious companions to the George Hotel, he staked out the building and spied on the suspect through a bedroom window, as he was sitting at a dressing table. Once he had confirmed Roberts’s identity, Caminada summoned the assistance of local police officers, who arrested the fugitive. His shocking crime had been reported in the London Daily News earlier that month.

Renowned gambler, William Collett, also known as Welsh, had been living with Emma Thomas in New Kent Road, Southwark. He earned his living from betting on horses and keeping a refreshment booth at the races. A jealous man, he kept a cavalry sword in his house, threatening to use it if he found his girlfriend talking to another man, particularly John Roberts, an acquaintance of the couple. Trouble flared on 26 November when Roberts, a ‘powerfully built man’, came to Collett’s house after a race, expecting to find Emma alone. Roberts flew into a violent rage, seizing a leg of mutton from the table and throwing it onto the floor. Collett grabbed his sword, which was two and a half feet long, but before he could unsheathe it, Roberts had snatched it from him. He struck Collett about the head with the sword several times until he fell to the ground unconscious. Collett died later from his injuries. In the meantime Roberts escaped, only to be arrested by Detective Caminada in Leeds. On 8 January 1872, John Roberts was tried on a charge of manslaughter at the Old Bailey.

In court the witnesses, who had been present during the fight, gave their account of the fateful evening and a different version of events emerged. The deceased’s girlfriend, Emma Thomas, was the first to take the stand. She testified that Roberts had arrived at the property with John Turner, a drinking companion, at about 10.30 pm whilst Collett was absent. Both men were drinking heavily and Roberts started to throw his weight around by demanding food and ale. Towards midnight Collett returned, also drunk, and when Roberts tried to steal his cigar, the two men had ‘a few words’. What happened next is unclear but it would seem that a scuffle ensued. Collett went to the fireplace to grab the poker, whilst Roberts reached for the cavalry sword, which was hanging on the wall. Emma Thomas, John Turner and another woman, Elizabeth Kelly, all tried to prise the men apart who, by now, were fighting. Turner later stated that it was Collett who had the sword first and that he had run at Roberts with it, catching him on the arm. No one seemed to see the fatal blows, but at the end of the tussle, 27-year-old William Collett had sustained a deep cut to the head that would end his life.

Under cross-examination all the witnesses agreed that the victim, William Collett, was ‘a very violent man when he was the worse for liquor’, and he had used his sword on others. Collett and Roberts had known each other for years and regularly went out drinking together. That evening they had clearly drunk too much gin and the general concensus was that the nature of the fight was ‘sparring’, without any serious intentions of injuring one other. The detective who escorted Roberts to London from Leeds recalled that the prisoner had said, ‘No one regrets more than I do this occurrence. Is it likely I should kill the young man?’

Thomas Jones, house surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, described Collett’s injuries at the trial. He had a clean cut on the top of his head, about three inches long and down to the bone. Although the wound healed well, he died of blood poisoning three weeks later.

John Roberts was acquitted of manslaughter and Detective Caminada received a message from Sir William Henderson of the Metropolitan Police, commending him for his part in Roberts’s arrest, ‘The merit of the arrest of John Roberts is entirely due to him, and we fully appreciate his conduct on the occasion.’

The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details, see her blog at victoriansupersleuth.com or follow Angela on twitter @amebuckley

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From the Bailey to Broadmoor

Not everyone sentenced by the Old Bailey ended up hanged or in prison.  For over two hundred years there has been the option of sending defendants to a special hospital instead.  This guest post by Mark Stevens of the Berkshire Record Office explores the history of probably the best known of those hospitals: Broadmoor.

Broadmoor is – and always has been – a very special hospital.  It is the oldest of these English institutions; the men’s wards opened 150 years ago this month.  Throughout its history it has operated in the no man’s land between the trenches of law and medicine: a place where guilt might be seen clearly but where responsibility is somewhat harder to determine.

The hospital was built as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and its function has always been the same.  It provides highly-secure psychiatric care for patients referred by the justice system.  It has become synonymous with this function; so much so that its name alone is enough to describe the complex work that it does.

The story of Broadmoor is one that is closely linked to the courts.  Many of its patients have been the subject of celebrated hearings.  Seldom have these hearings influenced the direction of the law, but they have had a profound effect on the way that society responds to people with mental illness.

James Hadfield shoots at George III, 15 May 1800

James Hadfield shoots at George III, 15 May 1800

Broadmoor’s genesis is usually traced to a similar hearing that took place in London in June 1800: not before the Old Bailey, but at the court of King’s Bench.  This was the trial of James Hadfield, a twenty-nine year-old Westminster silver worker, husband, and father.

Hadfield was charged with high treason. The month before he had purchased two pistols, stood on a bench at the Theatre Royal and then fired his weapons at King George III.  While chaos and pandemonium raged around him, Hadfield was tossed into the orchestra pit, sat upon and arrested.

For Hadfield, this was part of a larger plan.  He believed that his own death would usher in the return of Christ.  However, considering himself to be damned by sin if he committed suicide or murder, he had decided it would be preferable to engineer his execution.  Shooting at the King seemed a foolproof way to bring about this outcome.

But Hadfield had not bargained with the state’s reluctance to kill him.  No one wished this would-be assassin dead.  He was a war hero who had fought beside the King’s brother in France, who had suffered terrible head injuries in battle and who was clearly unwell.  The court of King’s Bench was instructed to let Hadfield plead insanity instead.

This presented a problem.  At the time, a successful insanity defence led to acquittal and a full discharge.  Hadfield would go free, potentially to shoot at the King again.  That was a risk that no responsible government could take. So Parliament simply changed the law to accommodate him. Hadfield was given a new status as a ‘criminal lunatic’ and a new, indefinite sentence was applied to him: he was ‘to be detained until His Majesty’s pleasure be known’.  Forty years later he ended his days in Bethlem, London’s ancient home for those with mental maladies.

Meanwhile, Hadfield’s sentencing option was applied occasionally by other English criminal courts.  The Old Bailey was amongst them.  And with the population of London standing in 1801 at over one million, it was inevitable that the capital’s central court would create a high proportion of the country’s growing number of ‘pleasure’ men and women.

Some of these pleasure patients became part of Broadmoor’s earliest cohort.  After a number of decades when criminal lunatics were housed in different institutions, it was decided to bring them together in one national asylum.  Broadmoor opened as this asylum on Wednesday, 27 May 1863.  Eight women were discharged from Bethlem, escorted to Waterloo and sent out by train into the Berkshire countryside.  They were met at Wokingham Station and then driven on by horse and carriage.

Sarah Allen was one of these women.  She was a Chelsea housewife who was married to a steamboat messenger.  In 1855, she became convinced that she had infected her three boys with a fatal skin disease.  Agonised by the hurt that she was sure she had caused them, one foggy autumn evening she took the boys down to the Thames embankment and threw them in.  Hearing screams in the water, two river bargemen managed to rescue the youngest children but the body of six year-old William was found downstream three days later.

On the same carriage bench sat Mary Hamilton.  She was a tailor’s wife from Hammersmith.  Two years earlier she had been living with her husband, baby son and four year-old daughter in a single room.  ‘It was a poor, miserable place’, said a policeman at her trial, ‘the worst place I was ever in for a dwelling’.  Her husband had been finding work difficult to come by and now the family was starving.   Mary tied a piece of braid tight round the baby’s neck and waited for him to suffocate. She explained that ‘I could not see it want for bread any longer’.

One of the women's dormitories in Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

One of the women’s dormitories in Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

Sarah and Mary were typical female admissions to Victorian Broadmoor.  Roughly 40% of the nineteenth century intake had killed their children.  ‘Over lactation’ was blamed in the case of Mrs Allen, while ‘destitution’ was the cause of Mrs Hamilton’s crisis.

Both women were placed within Broadmoor’s version of the moral regime.  The new asylum adhered to the same principles as other public hospitals.  Patients were provided with healthy surroundings, fresh air and regular occupation.  And because neither Sarah or Mary exhibited signs of active illness, they were placed in the women’s convalescent ward, allowed a needle and encouraged to sew clothes for asylum issue.

In due course Sarah was discharged, recovered: not to her husband – who did not wish to have her back – but to the care of her prosperous sister in Bristol.  Mary might also have been discharged, but she had no family to receive her.  Her poverty-stricken husband had died alone, while her daughter had died in the local workhouse.  So Mary remained in Broadmoor until she died at the age of 85.

Men's dayroom at Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

Men’s dayroom at Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

Similar stories can be found amongst those of the first male patients, whose transfer began on Saturday 27 February 1864.  These men also arrived from Bethlem, and amongst their number were patients whose tales are well-known, including Edward Oxford, Daniel McNaughten and Richard Dadd.

More so than the women, the men of Victorian Broadmoor demonstrate the breadth of cases that were referred to it.  Not only did the new asylum receive cases from across England and Wales – and the wider British Empire – but it also housed patients whose ages ranged from ten to eighty, and whose backgrounds spanned the social spectrum.

It is this breadth of status that makes Broadmoor such a unique hospital.  For while working men and women looked to the poor law asylums for relief, the middle class would usually opt for private care or nursing at home.  The nature of Broadmoor’s admissions did not allow for such distinction.

At one end of the class hierarchy are cases such as George Hennem.  Here is London’s working poor: George lodged with his wife Jane in east London and took stone-cutting work when he could.  Like Mary Hamilton, George’s fear of privation led him to acute depression.  He had always been a loving husband, but now he felt that Jane might be better off without him.  He contemplated suicide.  Then, fearful for Jane’s future as a pauper’s widow, George resolved to let her suffer no longer: he took a hatchet and bludgeoned his wife’s head as she slept.  He took off to the Thames to drown himself but was rescued and ended up in Broadmoor instead.

George shared his new accommodation with the Honourable William Ross Thicknesse Tuchet, third son of the twentieth Baron Audley.  The Audley family had fallen lately on hard times – the result of some dubious land deals and a disputed inheritance – and William had been obliged to take a flat in London with his elder brother.  There was little hope of an improvement in circumstances and the avenues to comfort were slowly closing to him.  On a summer’s day he walked into a Holborn gunsmiths, loaded a pistol and shot the proprietor.  Like James Hadfield, William expressed a desire to be hanged.  He felt that he ‘had been treated very badly’.

William was almost certainly suffering from a form of progressive dementia.  At Broadmoor, he gradually lost the powers of speech and movement, so that he had to be helped to wash and dress.  In his later years he entered a catatonic stupor.  His existence was discreetly removed from Burke’s Peerage and he was ignored by the Audley men.  Instead his sister, niece, and great-nieces organised a relay of visits and an annual Christmas hamper to the relative they knew only as ‘the boy in the shed’.

The extent of Broadmoor as seen from the south, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

The extent of Broadmoor as seen from the south, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

These two men were part of a group who met Broadmoor’s initial capacity of 500 patients, which was filled in a ratio of four men for every one woman.  It was a sizeable space, but even this was soon replete.  Broadmoor was expanded twice in the Victorian period: first in 1887 and again in 1902. By the early years of the twentieth century, this Berkshire plot was home to some eight hundred patients.  And as even this enlarged hospital approached capacity, plans were put in place to build a branch of Broadmoor in the midlands.  That branch would become Rampton Hospital, opened in 1912.

The reason Broadmoor expanded so quickly was because it worked.  It delivered the public protection demanded by Victorian society, and it delivered the medical care that was required by its new patients.  Its success made the special hospitals an established part of the medical and legal landscapes, and allowed courts like the Old Bailey to continue to make hospital orders.

But Broadmoor is a much smaller place today.  The women have moved to Rampton; Ashworth is available for the men of north England; while a number of medium secure facilities now exist to provide care beyond the walls of the special hospitals. The result is that the old asylum has become an expensive monument to a previous age.  It is too big for its current patient numbers and too costly to maintain.  So it is to be rebuilt.  By 2017 a new hospital will be open on the site of the old women’s wards, while those buildings that remain on the men’s side will be redeveloped for other uses.

Whatever form Broadmoor takes in the future, the criminal law will continue to have need of it.  Cases will still be heard where the responsibility of defendants is either diminished or obscured by mental illness.  The successors to Sarah Allen and George Hennem will continue to impact on our understanding of mental illness.  Broadmoor’s pioneering work became the model for our response to such cases; it remains the standard by which the no man’s land of law and medicine is judged.

Mark’s book Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum is available in bookshops and online.

Follow Mark on twitter @markoria

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The Strange Case of James Carse and Horatio Nelson


“JAMES CARSE is indicted, for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 2nd day of December1787, in and upon Sarah Hayes , single woman, in the peace of God and our Lord the King, feloniously did make an assault, and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies… did wilfully and maliciously strike and thrust, giving her one mortal wound of the length of eight inches, and of the depth of two inches, of which she instantly died.”

Indictments for murder in the 19th century did not mince their words. They were emotional in tone and  gory in their description of the alleged crime and must have put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. The phrases “not having the fear of god,” and “seduced…

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